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Friday, May 27, 2005

Seriously, let's think of the children

Let's take a step back and go to why the Illinois law get's so much traction in the first place. It's about the kids. Everyone loves kids. Well, almost everyone - but very few people want to see them shoot each other in the street. I know I don't want to see that kind of thing on my street, we have enough problems with people picking up after themselves as it is.

Remember that the law defines violent video games as a factor in youth related violence. Let's assume for a moment that the statement is accurate. We'll ignore the sticky issue of casuality and say that yes, video games depicting violence can have such a harmful effect on children that it's in the public good to curtail their exposure to this media.

So what will the Demuzio bill do to help that?

The answer is .... probably very little. The main reason is because the vast majority of video game purchases aren't being done by minors:

The Washington-based Entertainment Software Association noted last year that the average age of a video game player is 30 and that the average age of a video game purchaser is 36. Parents are involved in the purchase of games 83 percent of the time, the association said.

"When we look at our consumer graphic information, approximately 50 percent of purchases are made by women," said Anita Frazier, an analyst for the NPD Group, which tracks the industry. "They're largely buying it as a gift or as a reward to a child, a husband, a brother."
- Washington Post

And of course, we have the fact that in Illinois, police aren't too worried about video games. So who is going to enforce this? If this isn't going to help the kids, and it's not going to help the parents ... why do it?

Well, it sounds good for the politicians and it opens the door wide open for frivolous lawsuits. When it comes to educating parents and trying to hoist some responsibility on them - this law only does two things: force a new label on games and maintain that retailers must post a sign about the ESRB (again ... what about Internet retailers?).

The sad thing is ... education is probably where the two camps could agree. Here are the words of Craig Anderson, a Doctor of Psychology at the University of Iowa and one of the staunchest opponents of children being exposed to violent media:

However, even though one cannot reasonably claim that a particular act of violence or that a lifetime of violence was caused exclusively by the perpetrator's exposure to violent entertainment media, one can reasonably claim that such exposure was a contributing causal factor. More importantly for this hearing, my research colleagues are correct in claiming that high exposure to media violence is a major contributing cause of the high rate of violence in modern U.S. society. Just as important, there are effective ways of reducing this particular contributing cause. Educating parents and society at large about the dangers of exposure to media violence could have an important impact.
- Senate Hearings, 2000

I think if both sides of this issue look at that conclusion the argument would center on this:

One can reasonably claim that such exposure was a contributing causal factor [to an act of violence].

For myself, I find the statement reaching and difficult to prove. What kind of contribution does the Doctor infer here? How much exposure would be required to be considered "high"? So on and so on. But let's focus on the Doctor's other two statements:

One cannot reasonably claim that a particular act of violence or that a lifetime of violence was caused exclusively by the perpetrator's exposure to violent entertainment media.

Educating parents and society at large about the dangers of exposure to media violence could have an important impact.

Now if we put all this together, I think maybe everyone could agree on what's important. Let's not focus on trying to stop crime by limiting the sale of games which depict crime. That has more problems of perspective than an MC Escher sketch. Let's agree that a ten year old raised on wrestling, cop shows and online shooters is probably not going to be as mentally healthy as the one who mastered Katamari Damarcy ( but then again, who would be? )

And let's agree that the best solution is to go to the source of the problem - the parents, and try to help them out. Not blame them, but focus on helping them get the information they need. Let's think education, not legislation. Then maybe we'll get healthier kids instead of richer lawyers.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Demuzio and the Indies: Example

Just to illustrate the kind of game that could get tagged by the Illinois bill once it's signed, look at REL Games' Deadhunt. The game is clearly violent, has no ESRB rating and therefore almost definately falls under the specifications of the law and you don't even need a credit card to purchase it online.

And the thing is ... if the legislation doesn't cover online retailers it's essentially useless. In fact it probably adds an unfair incentive to buy online. Why bother with Best Buy hassling you about your ID? If kids really want to play GTA, all they need is daddy's credit card and a web browser.

But I'm sure without the corrupt influences of interactive media all over the place that no child would ever have such impure thoughts.

Demuzio: Mods and Indies in Trouble?

Much of my ado about the Illinois law has been focusing on their definition of violence and video games. By detailing a video game as a potentially harmful object, there is a whole new slew of ramifications which follows. This seems an easily overlooked aspect of the law, that it's not only making a moral judgement on video games but a public safety one as well.

There's another aspect which seems to have gone past unnoticed. We generally think of this law merely in brick and mortar stores like Best Buy or Circuit City. There is, however, no such distinction to be found in the law:

"Video game retailer" means a person who sells or rents video games to the public.
- HB4023 12A-10

That means this law includes any internet retailer as well. In it's current form, there is a bit of a safety net as probably 99% of all internet sales go through credit cards which is itself a valid age check.

However, even with that it could impact small developers who offer free downloads of their game that they also sell. So if you are an indie developer creating the next CrimsonLand and a 14 year old downloads the demo of your game in Illinois, you could be up for a $5,000 fine. Plus, you might be liable if that 14 year old gets caught in a subsequent violent crime.

There's an even more nightmarish problem. If the Illinois Assembly were to alter the wording so that it merely covers those who distributes violent material, any person involved on a mod team might be on the hook for this as well. You would no longer be able to distribute violent material without doing a proper age check. Since mods and indie games frequently do not undergo the ESRB rating, they would have no choice but to submit to the Illinois' much broader definition of violent material.

The costs of properly adjusting to these requirements alone could keep many mod teams from developing at all.

Illinois Bill could be Law Today

According to Game Politics, Demuzio's bill could be law by the end of today.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Demuzio, Thompson And You

I got a couple questions yesterday on comparing Demuzio to our favorite psycho, Jack Thompson. So let's run it down.

They are simulations, not all that different from the simulations used by the U.S. military in preparation for war.
- Demuzio

Look at the Institute for Creative Technologies created by DOD to create these killing games. Tax dollars paid to the industry to create the games to suppress the inhibition to kill, and then the industry turns around and sells these games to kids.
- Thompson

Studies conducted have concluded that adolescents who expose themselves to greater amounts of video game violence were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights and performed more poorly in school.
- Demuzio

The heads of six major health care organizations testified before Congress that there are "hundreds" of studies that prove the link.
- Thompson

And the icing on the cake? The law itself.

The General Assembly finds that minors who play violent video games are more likely to:
Exhibit violent, asocial, or aggressive behavior.
Experience feelings of aggression.
Experience a reduction of activity in the frontal lobes of the brain which is responsible for controlling behavior.
- HB4023, Sec 12A-5 - Findings

But let's trackback for a second and see how the joint statement to Congress on entertainment violence ends:

Although less research has been done on the impact of violent interactive entertainment (video games and other interactive media) on young people, preliminary studies indicate that the negative impact may be significantly more severe than that wrought by television, movies, or music. More study is needed in this area, and we urge that resources and attention be directed to this field,

We in no way mean to imply that entertainment violence is the sole, or even necessarily the most important factor contributing to youth aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence. Family breakdown, peer influences, the availability of weapons, and numerous other factors may all contribute to these problems. Nor are we advocating restrictions on creative activity. The purpose of this document is descriptive, not prescriptive: we seek to lay out a clear picture of the pathological effects of entertainment violence.

Basically the Illinois Senate is nodding their heads in assuming that video games can be a direct cause to violent behavior. They frame the violence side of this video game law not as any kind of curtailing of free speech - because video games are not a form of speech by their definition. They frame it as a public safety issue.

The danger there lies in the liability if a public safety problem arises from not obeying this law. If a Best Buy clerk willingly sells a kid a copy of Grand Theft Auto, and then next week that kid kills a copy while stealing a car ... the Best Buy clerk may have helped incite the crime.

As slopes go, I'm not sure it gets much slicker.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Open Letter to Senator Demuzio

Quick recap for those new to the program.

I just sent an e-mail to Senator Demuzio outlining my distaste for her public comments about video games as art ... a copy to follow. Humorously, I accidentally left the subject "Rough Draft". Ah caffiene. I later resent with a proper subject line, better to have her get two than to have someone delete it thinking it's spam. Actually, what's funny is that "Rough Draft" would probably mean more to here, since her actions and words show that she'll probably simply ignore the more meaningful subject "Video Games Are Art".

Oh well. The real purpose is to let people know what the Illinois assembly thinks of new media. Their narrow view means has wide ranging effects here. Can't flash movies be video games? Are they art? Will they be censored from the net for fear of raising an army of Manchurian children?

In theory, I don't have a huge problem with this bill. I don't think a boy or girl of ten should be playing Grand Theft Auto. In practice, it doesn't make much sense though. First - where is the epidemic? There hasn't been any string of youth-related violence in Illinois and overall, crime has actually been down. And in spirit, I object earnestly to labelling video games as nothing more than watered down military simulators.

Basically the bill says that any clerk renting or selling a game which is not rated EC, E10+, E, or T faces a $5,000 fine (Edit: I had misread one of the revisions as changing this to $1,000 previously. It is actuallly "a Class A misdemeanor for which a fine of $5,000 may be imposed"). I'm having trouble hunting down the Illinois codes for selling pornography, alcohol or tobacco to a minor, but Gamespot had great rundown of California's similar legislation and points out that it's stiffer than selling smokes to a ten year old there. Update: Still looking for "harmful" material, like tobacco, that the violent games are more akin to, but pornography and sexually explicit games are on about equal footing here.

Fact is - our governor hasn't been doing well in the polls and he's looking for an easy target to win some brownie points. However, Demuzio has now framed this as a free speech battle. She wants to sideline interactive media, which is a horrible presumption to make.

So if you're a gamer and you believe that video games can be an expression of art and that they should be protected and treated as such, then please forward this on to others you know that may feel the same. A link at the bottom of this points to the bill in question to let you know who is supporting this.

Letter follows:

Senator Demuzio,

Recently on the Senate floor you made the interesting declaration that
video games are neither art nor media and therefore cannot be
protected an expression of free speech.

I wonder by what basis you would make such a statement. Perhaps
you've decided that nothing interactive can be art. That seems a very
shallow and outdated view of art. I believe I've even participated in
such artwork at the Art Institute here in Chicago. Perhaps you've
decided that anything which attempts to depict a realistic setting
isn't art? That make sense only if you want to ignore countless of
photographers which have seen their work framed on walls. I've played
many games which are simply a testament to artistic ability, so I fail
to see your logic here.

You said video games were simulations, not unlike those simulations
used in preparations for war. I'll have to say, Senator ... I've seen
the simulations that we've used to prepare for war and they would make
horrible video games. I also wonder what it is about a simulation
that you feel makes it devoid of art? Is not any still life a
simulation? Is there not a multitude of art which attempts to
simulate life?

What appears to be taking place is that you've decided to accept the
misinformed opinion that video games are little but training materials
for violent behavior. On your website you quote a study which says
that children who play video games may act out more in school. I've
read that study, Senator, and I find it interesting that you leave out
the section which says that there is no indication that video games
could be determined to be a deciding factor. I suppose politics
in this country has come to the point where a careful selection of
details passes as truth ... but I assure that it's still isn't true
for the rest of us.

Instead of worrying about the real factors of cultural violence - like
drug addiction and poverty - you and your cohorts have chosen a
scapegoat. Unfortunately, your words frame this action for what it is
- an attack on the freedom of speech in new and emergent media.
Perhaps this media is evolving quickly and needs to be studied and
discussed - but you cannot simply declare that it is not an expression
of speech when it so surely is.

I've just read the latest amendment to this bill. I also find it
interesting that our last line of defense will be the underpaid clerk.
Is that realistic? Why is a retail clerk more responsible for the
actions of a child than the parent who should be standing next to the
child? What precisely is the social blight you are trying to fix
here? That retail clerks do not take enough responsibility for
another person's child? Because they are in line for a $1,000 fine
... while the parent gets away for free. Now our culture has decided
that not only will television raise our child, but Blockbuster will be
our babysitter.

Are stories not a form of art you are familiar with? Well, let me
tell you another story. This is a story of the new communication. It
begins with me sending you this email and then forwarding it onward to
several of my friends. I will inform them of you and the Illinois
Democratic Party's view on free speech and how you care to define
them. I will keep this information posted on my website for other
people to reference. They will continue to pass that along to those
they see fit.

The story will end on election day, Senator. I will be thinking of
you, the Governor, and your friends on that day. Of course, you get
to take part in this story. How you view new media and it's rights of
free speech and protection under the law can help determine the

Think of it as an interactive tale.

Good day,

Joshua Birk


The bill itself on

Lucas, Shakespeare you are not

Saw Sith on Sunday.

One sentence summary: if you aren't a fan of the franchise, stay away. Despite what some claim, this movie does not vindicate the last two. It's definately the best of the three, but it's crippled by all the stupidity that comes before it. At the beginning of the movie, I thought it might turn out better than Jedi did, but by the end it certainly didn't. ROTJ was just overly hokey in places, ROTS is just plain dumb in places. Lucas is asking way too much suspension from his audience here, and if you aren't a loyal follower in the House of Skywalker, you probably won't comply. Four out of five from my movie party didn't.

Note to Lucas: You aren't Shakespeare, and you never will be. You are the idea guy, but when it comes to implementation you're just barely average. Let other people run with your universe, because they will do a better job. I enjoyed Clone Wars on Cartoon Network way more than this movie.

The short of the long of it people, is that watching an arrogant selfish bastard go from being somewhat reckless to over-top psychotic evil is not really the stuff of myth. Save your money, there will be better science fiction this year to waste it on.